This was a talk Mark Dever gave at the T4G conference this past year that is relevant to many discussions, postings and conversations I’ve been having lately with many different people in person and on the internet. To sum this whole thing up, Dever says at the beginning of this talk, “People try to improve the Gospel. But in improving the Gospel they end up losing it.”
And while this is a legitimate concern I share in seeing the quick descent of much of evangelicalism, we who would criticize those we see as doing some of the very things Dever speaks of must be careful how we 1) come across to those we are in disagreement with, 2) how we say things, 3) that we don’t let such a concern distract us from the cause of the Gospel itself by being absorbed in finger pointing, 4) use wisdom when approaching these situations, and finally 5) think carefully before you hit the send button about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it (Ben Davis).
I have learned several things from J. Gresham Machen, the professor, theologian and teacher who left Princeton Theological Seminary and founded Westminster Seminary (as well as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), in combating the theological liberalism of his day that has seemed to morph into a new, postmodern version in our present situation:
- He was right to call those out who were subverting the Gospel through adapting the Biblical message to the secular culture around him (particularly a modernistic culture).
- In biographies of Machen, his friends said he was mild-mannered and gentle.
- But apparently his opponents said he had a sharp tongue when they spoke with him.
This last point is the one that concerns me for our day. Machen was a supreme example of someone who battled for truth. His unwavering commitment to teaching and preaching a pure Gospel message is commendable. You should read his book Christianity and Liberalism (which could rightly have been titled Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism actually – Gatiss). But from some of the historical evidence, he also sacrificed many relationships he could have potentially entered into and won them over. Yes God is sovereign over all of it. But don’t forget that at the same time we are responsible too and the Lord will hold us accountable.
I gleaned all of this from three recent lectures on the Tolerance of Liberalism in the early 1900’s, given by Lee Gatiss in the UK (who is a part of the Church of England, the conservative minority at least). If you want some insight into our current situation, you should listen to these lectures on what was done right and should be imitated, but also some things that were done wrong and should not be imitated. Unfortunately, I see many Reformed people (including myself at times, I’m a work in progress in this area) of doing many of the same things Machen did that were frankly wrong. This must be at the forefront of my mind personally when approaching anything critically.
My point is that we who criticize may have legitimate concerns and be right in those convictions. However, too often, it is easy for us to get distracted from preaching and embodying the Gospel to the lost ourselves, in an effort to make sure everyone else is doing this very thing “correctly”; you know, the whole, “take the log out of your own eye so you can clearly see to take the spec out of your brothers’ eye,” thing. If we’re lashing out at those we are concerned about, we should watch that we are not falling into sin, for this has the reverse effect that we desire many times. It is very easy for this to slip in amongst us with our attitudes all the while not seeing it.
Jon Dansby, a best friend of mine, recently said this in our high school discipleship group (dteam): “The Gospel is an offensive message, but don’t YOU be offensive in how you come across.” Unfortunately, I don’t think people reject the message of the Gospel as much as the messenger many times. And this goes for the lost as well as fellow believers with whom we differ with on some points. We need the wisdom of God in how to approach these things.
The reality is, we live in an emotionally-charged culture in which people think first with their feelings instead of their heads. Many arguments are made on the basis of emotions, not clear, logical, reasoned thought. Though we should work to change this, at the same time, we must come to terms with the fact that this is the way people are here. And if the way we come across is angry, arrogant, frustrated, immovable, unattentive to them, not giving an ear to what they consider to be important, then what makes you think they will hear what we have to say? Yes the Holy Spirit still does His job, yet we are responsible and the agents through which the Spirit works, true? I just wonder how much more impact Machen could have made had he not lashed his opponents with his tongue. And unfortunately, I see too much of myself in Machen in this regard. By God’s grace, I pray He changes that in me.